The night before the Mongol Rally started, I got to talking to a Dane driving a van covered top-to-bottom purple fur. This was his second attempt at the rally; he tried to make it to Mongolia 2 years ago and 14,000km in, he ran into visa issues and had to turn back. Now he was back to try his luck again. As a Rally veteran, he shared his volumes of advice over a cigarette:
“Say yes to everything,” he said. “Whenever someone invites you to do something, no matter what, you say yes.” All of his best experiences on the 2009 rally were from saying yes to drunken police officers who wanted to take him on a 2AM tour of their city, or Mongolian yak herders who were looking for a husband for their daughter.
So when my crazy father tells me that he’s in touch with a hemp factory in Kluj, Romania and suggests that we pay a visit, we didn’t have much choice but to say, well, yes. “It will make the rally a business trip,” he told me.
My dad’s always got new ideas for how to expand his atlatl business (a primitive spear-throwing weapon), and in the past few years, he’s been deeply interested in fibers. For a time, he was growing the only field of flax in New York State (and maybe the entire eastern seaboard) in hopes of starting up a new linen industry in the U.S. In our garage, he was even building a scale model of a building-sized machine, his invention, that would cut, thresh and process the fiber right in the field. It was an idea that was a bit too crazy to ever actually take off, and pieces of the unfinished machine now sit in our garage.
Now dad’s interest was in hemp, flax’s cousin. Hemp’s an amazingly versatile and hardy fiber, grown in America for generations (even George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had fields), but now it is illegal to grow in America because of generations of anti-marijuana hysteria. (Don’t get my dad started on that.) For several months, My father had been exchanging emails with the Romanian hemp clothing company Ecolution, trying to suss out a new source of raw materials. When he learned that I would be driving through Mongolia this summer, he excitedly told his Romanian hemp contact. Their response? A formal invite for us to visit the factory.
“Yes,” we said, out of dutiful obligation to our Rally mantra. Next thing we knew, we were on our way to Northwest Romania, with only a vague notion of what to expect, and a cryptic email from the people at Ecolution saying “Yes, let’s do it.”
We rolled into Kluj at about 10:00AM, and I checked our team phone to find five missed calls (leaving it on vibrate in the bottom of your pack does that). As I scrolled through the call log, the phone rang again. It was a sales manager from Ecolution named Ioana, and in a frenzied voice, she asked us where we were. Ioana was already waiting for us at their factory, and meant business! After a brief discusion, I told her “sure,” we could meet her at a square in the middle of Kluj’s confusing downtown, a place so hard to find that all the locals we talked to couldn’t quite explain how to get there. We quickly found a hotel and paid them to let us use their showers (having not had a shower in a few days), put on the nicest clothes we could find in our backpacks. Then we drove Kluj hopelessly lost for forty-five minutes, fielding a half dozen more phone calls from Ioana asking where we were, before we finally happened upon the right square with a woman in pink shirt waving us down excitedly. We’d found Kluj’s warehouse district.
Ioana led us down a few alleys among several of Kluj’s crumbling factories, past a shoe factory with its dumpsters full of leather scraps, up several flights of stairs past various other clothing manufacturers, and finally into Ecolution.
A modest single-floor factory, it hummed with the sound of looms, sewing machines, and machines that did things like spin thread into yarns and soften threads. “Welcome to Ecolution,” said Ioana, as we could feel the eyes of all the factory workers pointed straight at the three bearded American twenty-somethings who had appeared in their workplace.
Now, I know almost nothing about fabric and fiber, and I have never faked expertise more in my life. “Where do you, um, grow the hemp?” I would ask, or comment on a piece of fabric “Oh yes, this is great, very durable, very high quality. Good.” Jeff and Chris walked behind, equally fish-out-of-water but without the burden of speaking on behalf of their father’s business. So it was up to me to do all the talking (and bullshitting). “My father is very interested in this yarn,” I’d nod, “this is just what he needs,” knowing only in the vaguest sense what types of things my father used on his atlatls — to me, string is string.
Luckily, Ioana was able to procure a variety of swatches and samples, labeled with product numbers, which I will be sending home to my dad to see for himself. The prices for Ecolution’s products are a fraction of what we would pay retail in the States, and the quality of the materials appeared to be very high, so I know that he’ll be happy with what I brought back. Chris and I took various macro-focused shots of the cloths and strings around the factory (to show off the texture), another request my father had made of me.
Aside from one awkward conversation with a project manager who clearly saw through our facade and could tell we knew nothing about hemp or fabric, the factory visit was very interesting, if only to see all of the machinery and steps that are taken to turn hemp fiber into a finished product. We saw the spools of thread that the factory buys directly from the farmers, the machines that process the thread, the looms that turn it into cloth, the tailors and sewing machines where it was cut and stitched together, and the dye room where the clothing was made colorful and ready to sell. The entire process is etirely organic — Ecolution’s market, as you might have guessed, was primarily upscale shops where people are willing to pay high dollar for clothing that is made out of a rare fabric with entirely eco-friendly and organic processes.
After our factory tour, we made a brief stop at the Ecolution office (where there was a sign up that said “English-only zone…you will be fined if you speak in Romanian”) — very interesting to see how international companies run their businesses.
Then, Ioana treated us to lunch at a traditional Romanian restaurant. The food I got was good and hearty (meat, potatoes, cabbage, cornmeal mush), though a bit bland. Jeff ordered tripe soup, not knowing that tripe is the stomach lining of a cow. (He asked Ioana what he was eating, thinking the chewy part was squid. Nope.)
We had a great conversation with Ioana and made fast friends, before she led us back to our car by way of several of Kluj’s famous monuments and churches. Then we started up our car and continued on our way through Romania…with a big bag of hemp samples and marketing paperwork in tow.
What a cool and random experience. Always say YES when you get invited to do something on the Rally. You won’t regret it.